When I was working at a failing radical newspaper some thirty years ago, someone gave me the task of preparing a third-class mailing. This meant hand-processing about 5,000 envelopes, maybe more. Third-class mailings are supposed to consist of identical envelopes, with only the addressee different. For this job, however, the envelopes were of varying sizes and weights, and there were a few different return addresses. Third-class mailings must also be brought to the post office in order by zip code. These envelopes were in alphabetical order – by the first letter of the addressees’ first name. This meant I had to sort all of the envelopes into order by zip code.
The mailing was for a for-profit consultant business, but the consultant wanted us to use the newspaper’s nonprofit status to save on postage, and interrupted me to insert a handwritten letter to a recipient. I tried to explain what needed to happen in order to prepare the mailing. The stock response when concerns like this were raised was “Oh piffle.” I don’t know if this was intended to make me feel that any anger at my being given such a task was a trifling matter. It certainly did give me that feeling, while also making me all the more angry.
I have no doubt that someone with more experience preparing mailings or more authority in this workplace would have refused this task. I know this because they did, which is why it fell to me. I began with ten stacks of envelopes. Pretty soon this became untenable. Envelopes in a third-class mailing are supposed to be grouped in in four different categories; bundles comprised of all the same zip code, the same three leading digits in a zip code, same state, and mixed state. I probably could have prepared separate mailings for each of the fifty states or even just a few zip codes in each. There were not enough horizontal surfaces available to adequately sort the 5000 envelopes. I had stacks of envelopes split between two rooms as I walked back and forth holding one or two dozen at a time. People who got to sit at a desk with a red pen all day noticed the mess. Some seemed actually peeved at me for this reason.
When I finally got the envelopes into mailbags, I realized I had to split the project into multiple mailings. It was more than I could load into the supermarket shopping cart – long ago commandeered for tasks of this kind – and bring to the post office. The bags awaiting shipment were thrown into a pile and resembled body bags enough that people commented upon this as though I were morally culpable for the deaths of those inside.
Finally I began lugging these bags to the bulk mail acceptance unit at the nearby post office. I had to fill the shopping cart as much as possible, and most trips included at least one instance of the shopping cart tipping over, after which I would reload and set it upright, sometimes assisted by random passersby.
At the post office I was informed that the mailings were unacceptable. Perhaps out of pity, the bulk mail acceptance guy – I remember his face and name to this day – told me he would accept the mailings nonetheless. After a few arduous days, I’d trekked back and forth to the post office enough times that all the bags of envelopes were gone.
The person who put me up to this task has now shaken off this mortal coil and I see no reason to reveal their name, as some who could be reading this would recognize it.
This was before the term “neoliberalism” circulated widely. The politics of this place, a fusion of people radicalized by the larger left organizations of the 1930s through the 1960s, were being thrown into crisis by what was happening in the world between Reagan’s second term and Desert Storm. Forces reactionary, revolutionary and others less easily identifiable were pulling the place apart both as an institution with files, phones and a safe, and as a political tendency. The disconnect between what the intellectual laborers of the editorial staff saw through the lens of their solidarity tours in other parts of the world and my experience as a community college reject busting ass in the rundown circulation department was not something any of us were able to easily reconcile. If the task of resolving those contradictions was given to me to put in order by default, I don’t think I was up to it.
Some combination of my own problems and the contradictions here described, among others I encountered while working in this place, ultimately saw me dismissed from my position. Less than a year later the office closed its doors forever. As my own condition deteriorated, I telemarketed subscriptions to Newsday out of a workroom adjoining a commercial garage in Flatlands, Brooklyn, then worked at a large bookstore in Manhattan, before finally ending up in a locked ward for a time. The ensuing years of semi-convalescence were concluded by an abrupt immersion in a 9-5 job in pursuit of medical coverage. But that’s a story for another day.
Matt Capri currently works as a temp in New York City. His blog is at https://pigeonofminerva.wordpress.com/